Jonathan Moreno – Our New Biopolitics

October 24, 2011

Human cloning. Synthetic biology. Mood (and mind) altering drugs. Personalized medicine.

Such topics are rarely at the top of the political agenda. Yet the changes they’re causing, often below the radar, are monumental. Issues of personhood, identity, ethics, are at play. The human future may be very different from the human past as these changes are negotiated and assimilated.

And so may human politics.

To help us prepare for this radical future is Jonathan Moreno, author of the new book The Body Politic: The Battle Over Science in America, which underscores the strange bedfellow allegiances that may occur in what has been called our “biological century.”

Jonathan Moreno
is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and on the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is one of 13 Penn Integrates Knowledge university professors.

He is a historian, medical ethicist, and philosopher, and was part of Barack Obama’s transition team.

This is point of inquiry from Monday, October 24th, 2011. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m Chris Mooney point of inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry think tank Advancing Reason, Science and Secular Values in Public Affairs and at the Grassroots. My guest this week is Jonathan Moreno. He’s a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and he’s on the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, where he’s one of 13. Penn integrates knowledge university professors. Marino is a historian, a medical ethicist and a philosopher. He was part of President Barack Obama’s transition team as well. And I wanted to have him on to discuss his new book, The Body Politic The Battle over Science in America, which gets at the strange bedfellow allegiances that may occur as new technologies change everything in our new biological century. Jonathan Marino welcomes a point of inquiry. 

Well, thank you, Chris. Your central topic in the new book is what you call the new bio politics, which I take to refer to how new biomedical and genetic technologies and to some extent neuroscience based as well, are going to exert a transformative effect in what has been called often our biological century. And I guess we saw this. We see it regularly. We saw with the latest stem cell headlines. So maybe we can just sort of dove in there, maybe unpack that one a little bit for us. 

Sure. And I think that that is a good place to start because, you know, for me, that period and that debate about the stem cell controversy was the turning point. You know, for more than 40, almost, I guess, 40 years at this point, I’ve been paying attention to ethical issues in the life sciences and medicine. And by the late 70s, early 80s, there was a fairly well-defined field of bioethics as as you and your listeners know. But it was a very academic field in the late 70s. You could probably fit everybody who was considering themselves a bioethicist into a good sized room. And there was a lot of gentility in those discussions. It was an unspoken rule, you know, academic rule that even if you had really deep disagreements about something like the origins of human life and personhood and so forth, you you kept it civil. And for the most part, stayed away from questions like at what point does the embryo become an an entity with human rights? And there were a lot of issues, some of which you are old enough to remember, that came up in public in which that could have gotten pretty nasty. But it it didn’t until I would say after the Bush Gore election, which was, of course, within a few years of the isolation of human embryonic stem cells and the cloning of the first mammal, Dolly. At the same time and stuff that you’ve worked on, the late 90s was a period of much more intense ideological identification in the country. Obviously, particularly the 2000 election, brought that to a head. And and so there were there was all these factors that were sort of over determining the role of this this discovery of the ability to culture out what were being called embryonic stem cells in the laboratory and for no less than three presidential campaigns. This has been a subject that candidates have had actually to have positions on. So I think that’s it. That naturally is the critical turning point that academic bioethics became now a political topic. And and this, of course, in spite of the fact that cloning and culturing out stem cells, as is and was a pretty arcane set of technologies, particularly in the case of stem cells used in only a few laboratories around the world. And yet it became a sentinel issue, sentinel cultural issue. 

You set these kinds of fights in a pretty broad, sweeping context, in some sense, dating back to Francis Bacon and wonderful, crazy book he wrote to Atlanta’s, but also, you know, the enlightenments and the founding of America and then taking that trajectory all the way up through Vannevar Bush, setting in motion modern postwar research country that we are. This is put America in the posture of being broadly pro science. And you note that when you pull the public, they all think that science makes our lives better rather than makes our lives worse. I mean, that’s no contest. They certainly have some reservations are, broadly speaking, that this is a pro science country. That’s our full position. So. Put it in that context. 

Well, look, I’ve had interesting reactions from people who are very well informed by educated when I talk about the founders at first, the first group of people who created a country who were themselves important scientists. And obviously there have been important scientists create other country ran other countries. I’m thinking about all those engineers and hydrologists who ran the Soviet bloc countries. But this is a group of people who themselves made important contributions to the natural philosophy of the day, we think, especially of Franklin and Jefferson. But, you know, washing himself as a surveyor, Alexander Hamilton wanted to be a doctor. Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense was interested in cosmology. So it really is part of the DNA of the country and and particularly as embodied in the patent statute, which Jefferson wrote in, which is very friendly to invention. And the whole goal of the of this group of founders was to make the country a country’s prosperity, really turn on its role as a magnet of creativity. The new world is against the old. But at every step of the way, science in America is involved, not unexpectedly with the twists and turns of the country. 

So, for example, in the early 19th century, you have the debate about internal improvements. How far could the federal government do investing and in states and localities? So southern members of Congress were very skeptical about that. Only after the Civil War do you had the creation of big federal infrastructure in support of agriculture and of engineering. The 20th century, of course, the era of physics, especially the new physics, the Manhattan Project, the creation of a of a relationship between the academic world, industry and government that you could not even imagine doing without now. So in general and of course, you know, the country does love science. And by the way, this recent sad death of Steve Jobs shows again how much we love science and we love the personalities of certain scientists, starting with people like Franklin and Jefferson and continuing through people like Edison and Einstein. But at the heart of all this. Also, even in the very beginning of the Enlightenment, you point out Francis Bacon’s up posthumously published with Utopia, the new Atlantis. There is a little bit of space for anxiety and skepticism about too much about science. I think about the hubristic tendencies of scientists. How far should we let these people go? How far will they go? This is less of a problem with engineering and physics, tentative with biology. And now we get to the stuff that you and I have been so interested in, in particular in in the cultural context in the United States the last 20, 30 years, a fairly traditional country in many ways more traditional by some measures, in terms of people who say they believe in God and attend church Islah or a mosque or a synagogue more traditional than the seed of the Enlightenment, Europe itself. And yet highly dependent in every sense on innovations in science. And that’s not a big problem in engineering, not a big problem in physics, but it can be a problem in certain areas of life sciences because we are preoccupied with this origins of life question. And as I argue in the book with for many cultural conservatives and particularly Christian conservatives, where do we stand in the integrate chain of being in relation to other species? And those are comfortable boundaries that the new biology is challenging, counting them both by good understanding of biology and both by able being able to manipulate the basic building blocks of life. 

Let me remind listeners that Jonathan Marino’s new book, The Body Politic, is available through our Web site Point of inquiry, dawg. I want to I want to focus in here. 

It seems to me reading your book, this is one thing that struck me that, you know, in terms of the new bio politics, I see two different kinds of issues. And one, I don’t know how much I think it’s new. So take stem cells or take Terri Shavuot. Take the. And these are actually the ones that have gotten by far the most public attention. Essentially, these are religiously impelled and part of the traditional culture war. And at least with stem cells, it’s closely related to abortion. And so it splits in the Christian right from the secular left. Then you have issues that you talk about, many of them, but they don’t ever seem to really, really get that much on the radar, as far as I can tell, not in the same way that stem cells or Terri Schiavo did. And these these are the ones where, you know, it’s going on all around us. And yet no one even seems to know synthetic biology, for example, you know, or nanotech. I mean, these things are these things are just taking off. Every time I hear science, hear what they’re actually doing, it blows my mind that the public has no idea. And maybe it’s because it doesn’t. Immediately. Tick off religious conservatives. 

I think that’s there’s a lot of truth to that. I mean, what’s going on? You mentioned nano and sin bio. And as you know, what are my other interests? Neuroscience. And there’s some really amazing things going on in neuroscience. It’s an interesting question why you have certain topics, the Scheibel case, the stem cell issue, rise to the level that you describe. Perhaps it is because they both engage the life issue, beginning of life and end of life. And, of course, a specific human being who seems to be so vulnerable. Actory, Shiloh, Anna. And, you know, the everything involved with the embryo obviously also stimulates these kinds of reactions. 

But I think it may be even more than that, because to take it to the to what I think is sort of the next level is the level of manipulation, commodification then and alienation, these these categories that really come out of the old left that the new right has really picked up, particularly the secular. You’re right. Turning into this this this image of fetal farms turning embryos into entities that can be bought and sold or reduced, brought into the commercial sector. Then the question of what if some somebody who seems to lack consciousness is that or the potential for consciousness, even as that person any longer a human being? What is it? What counts as a human being? So I think it’s true that those two topics excite traditional religious concerns. They also enter into some deep philosophical territory that is a little bit more clear than, for example, the neuroscientific enhancements that interest me when I write about new psychopharmacology or new neural implants or brain machine interface. But all of those topics and more have the potential in the right situation to stimulate the same kind of political upset. I think we haven’t the right context yet. And the other one that I would mention that is also in the book, I think is really interesting, is these laboratory animals called Chimaira that have some human cells in them that are used to do medical research on serious disease. 

That’s another one that I think has the potential to get into the under the radar, as you know, President Bush actually mentioned human animal hybrids in this decision, in speech. People were scratching their heads wondering what that’s about. But that’s mostly a state issue, not a federal issue so far. Really? And that has come up, as you know, in some of your listeners may know, in Louisiana, there is now a law signed by Governor Jindal more than two years ago that criminalizes the attempt to make human animal hybrids. So no question that historically these stem cells in China have been the issues. I think some of these have the have the opportunity on the radar, particularly if they have to do with the origins of life. 

What I want to take this further, because to me, this goes to the heart of why the United States is so different from Europe. 

You know, we have were way more religious, either way more secular. They have a kind of Green Party left that really does get uppity about technology. You know, they you know, they have a much stronger anti GMO movement that never took on any real momentum here. Here they have you know, they’re they’re much more strongly anti-nuclear than we are now, which I think is I disagree with them about as I do disagree on both of those issues, although I’m a liberal progressive. 

But I don’t I don’t think that we have the constituency here that’s going to really make and you could disagree with me. It’s going to really make this left wing egalitarian opposition to technological innovation into some kind of mass politics. 

When you think about it, I don’t know if there’s a mass political movement in there. And I think that’s a good point in the book. I only argue that or point out that there that the elites have engaged in this in the U.S. You know, you have you have there. There are certainly green progressives who sound very much like cultural conservatives on certain issues, whether those those elites will ever manage to make their ideas more popular than they have been so far. And that, it states, I think, is an open question. It’s certainly true that, you know, I could not get my students attend to take any interest in a rally, pro or con, on GMO. 

Maybe out of 80. I got a few hands know people who would sit at a rally about that. But you mentioned abortion. Everybody’s there. Whereas exactly the converse is true. 

If you raise the same question at the University of Groningen, and I’ve often said that my glasses and my students find that you appreciate it, young people find that pretty interesting and ask me why that is. And I have to say, I’m not exactly sure why that is. It’s a complicated, you know, different cultural histories on the continent and here. I do think that it is true and this has been argued by people like Yuval Levin. There’s some grain of truth to the idea that the anti GMO movement in Europe is sannyasin and an anti-American movement or at least a movement that anti that is worried about American the Americanization of Europe, which is something that Europeans are worried about for 40 years, ever since the Marshall Plan. So there is something I think there’s a grain of truth to that. And there’s also in Europe, particularly in agriculture, of course, a certain especial pride in local products and local character. So all that, I think, is part of the explanation. 

But still, it is true that, as you say, the green progressive attitudes toward, for example, biotechnology have not gotten a strong foothold in the U.S. And yet I think if you talk to individual individuals who are on the left and raised that question with them, thoughtful people, as I have done, they have very similar concerns as people on some on the cultural right about where biology is going. By the way, there are, of course, also people who call themselves people of the right who are very much pro technology, particularly if it means that it keeps government out of business. 

I know you have libertarians or even people or business oriented, commerce oriented conservatives, old fashioned, old fashioned conservatives, not neo conservatives who are very uncomfortable with the new right critique of science and technology. So there is some some, as I describe in the book, there’s philosophical crossing of lines that is certainly mostly on the elite level so far and on the popular level. 

One consequence of it not being on the popular level. If you’ll follow me a little further, is that probably even as these things don’t get highly politicized in a national context with that? Does. 

I’m thinking about personalized medicine. What that does, which nobody knows. Yeah, at least it’s not a voting issue, just like nanotech is not synthetic. Biology is not a you poll people. They don’t know what these things are. What that does is you have companies tearing it up, you know, trying out new stuff and marketing of all kinds of claims that are that are bunk that really in a sense, it puts the consumer at risk. It doesn’t become mass politics. But I’m thinking about like with personalized medicine. 

People claiming that you can eat a diet tailored to your genes and they have crazy stuff. Right. But that’s all you know. 

And then there was even a vigorous, vigorous and heated debate about whether you can design drugs that are targeted to your genome. 

You know, among the top people. And as you know, there’s a lot of money involved in answering that question, whether that can be done and whether it’s going to be cost effective. 

Ever done now or done ever. OK, cost effective ever, ever to do it that way. Yeah, interesting. 

So this is I mean, I’ve sat in on some of these these discussions and they are really, really quite vigorous. There are some people who, despite who just think that the whole idea of personalized medicine is a scam and that the phrase should be banished. Nobody knows what it means. Maybe there should be a presidential commission to define it. You know, presumably surgeons and physicians have always interested in personalizing medicine. So if it’s genetic medicine, that’s maybe a little different. But this is this is a kind of play out of next 10 or 20 years in a very interesting way. But again, it is it is, you know, kinda off the radar until the term personalized medicine catches the public imagination and you try to sell it. And the concern now in that community is whether it’s it’s valid even to use the term. 

I think people are just really vulnerable because while the word DNA is actually one of the few scientific terms, it doesn’t count as jargon anymore Gene. And DNA, I actually think everyone knows, has some sense of what those things mean. That’s the surface level of understanding is entirely inadequate to really grasp what’s going on here, because the way scientists think about this, you know, there is no there’s no dichotomy between genetics and the environment. Genes are turned on by the environment, are turned off by the environment. And that’s why we can’t figure out how to control or interact with them, as is so much going on. Most people just think it means determinism. 

Right. And your your observation about sort of lack of nuance and depth of understanding is even what a gene is. Reminds me of a perhaps apocryphal tale that is my journalist franchises is too good to fact check about a congressional delegation that went to the NIH. 

I guess this would have been about 15 years ago. And the question came up, well, where where are where are genes? And this delegation seemed not to really know one. 

One guy thought they were in our brains for 400 officials who have brands we know. 

Maybe that’s where they are. But. Well, right. I mean, you know, there there is this 19th century idea called the guy a hypothesis that I know you’re familiar with it, that the whole planet is alive. 

No. In fact, the cosmos is in some sense alive because of the interaction of all of these different discrete parts. And so, you know, that’s really what we’re talking about when we talk about the convergence of all these fields of science right now is how do these discrete parts interacting with each other? And that’s but that’s not a notion that when you talk about turning genes on and off, which, by the way, is something that geneticists talk about all the time, you’re doing that in in very extreme laboratory environments that have very little relationship to anything you could do in the real world. 

Let me remind our listeners again that Jonathan Marino’s new book, The Body Politic, is available through our Web site. Point of inquiry, dawg. Well, you talk about the different camps. You talk about bio progressors, bio conservatives. I think, broadly speaking, you would be a bio progressive. So maybe you could lay out for us some some principles that you think we ought to be following as we confront these issues here, either in a mass way, which I’ve been saying we’re not really confronting them in a mass way or in a more sort of policy wonk kind of way. 

I mean, how do you think we need to think about them from the standpoint of policy and ethics? 

Well, you know, I think I think of myself as a bio progressive, and I think that’s pretty much the mainstream position. And it’s not I’m not going to say that I have any profound principles or guidelines to lay out that I’ve been teaching normative ethics for, you know, decades. 

And I’m still not sure I have any to lay out. None that original with me. But I think that, you know, by Progressive as somebody who believes that in general science, technology is a good thing, that it has enhanced human flourishing, that our ability to live is both in the material world and to investigate our spiritual side, that those opportunities have been vastly increased in the last few hundred years. In particular, I’d say the past hundred years, hundred and fifty years by science and technology. We have we we live longer. We’re in less pain. We understand the world around us and inside of us. You know, this is the original consciousness expansion, it seems to me, is that the simple awareness that there’s more that there’s more space in it, in what appears to be a saw object than there is solidity. That, to me, is just incredible. So to be a bi progressivist, to believe that on the whole this has been very good, but there are some problems. Obviously, there are huge ecological problems. We we are often in danger of losing some of our somewhat is valuable at being human when we’re so preoccupied with technology. But I as a bio progressive, I also don’t agree with somebody like Heidegger who thought that agriculture is was just one step away from the death camps. I also think that it need there needs to be read smart regulation, but at large needs to be case by case. I’m not I don’t think the precautionary principle is not all that helpful. It’s been taken way out of its original context where it started in Europe. But I think there’s something to the critique of people like Oelrich Backhouse, the German sociologist who says, you know, modernity is characterized by its ability to project risk to it to the other side of the world, and has his original examples, the Bhopal catastrophe in India. So to be a bi progressive is also to, you know, to take serious to take seriously our responsibility, not to project risk to vulnerable peoples, these people who are moral strangers to us. 

So it is one of the one of that one of the consequences of bio progressivism, I think, is this sense that there is some kind of global responsibility for what we’re doing with science. But I think what all this says is that international organizations are so important that we need to be part of them and we will have to be, even if we’re dragged kicking and screaming into that with 20 or 30 years, because science itself is a globalized phenomenon now. 

Well, bio conservatives, at least we know one thing about them. They’re always screaming, stop, I don’t do this. 

And my guidance there, it’s in fact, I think it’s even worse. Kristen, stop it. Yeah, you’re you’re taking us down a very dark path. And no matter how much we tell you, you are not going to make any difference. 

And I think you see that time and time again in particularly in in the folks who write for journals like the new Atlantis and the staff in the past and perhaps future members bioethics commission at the presidential level. 

There’s there’s no past there’s no policy guidance there, which is, by the way, one of the reasons that it made sense that President Bush’s counsel did not try to give advice. 

It just wanted to have a public philosophy seminar. 

There’s no advice to be given because ultimately human arrogance, the hubris of scientists are the fact that we’re captured by wealth and by gadgets inevitably leads us down a very dark road. You know, there I was teaching this stuff to. My graduate students at Penn last week and I was talking a little bit about an essay by Irving Kristol, who died a couple of years ago. The one of the founders of the new right. An old lefty crystal son, of course, as Bill Kristol, still very active in conservative policy theorist. And Irving Kristol wrote a book, an essay, rather, called Two Cheers for Capitalism. And this is one thing that distinguishes the new right from the old right to choose for capitalism, because because capitalism doesn’t deserve a third. 

It it does have attention undermine human values, according to according to these thinkers. I don’t think that’s the case. I think that’s a manageable problem. But the bio conservatives coming out of the neoconservative movement clearly think that there is nothing for us to do. But, you know, get in the back of that of that steed called history and try to pull it back. But in the end, I think there’s deep sadness in their writings. I think if you look at people like me on casts, you see this because they really don’t think you can. 

Hmm, I guess I haven’t read them, maybe I haven’t read them that closely. It is an interesting phenomenon. I mean, nicer. I certainly notice them saying stop, but I don’t notice them saying, oh, I’m not sure it’ll actually happen. But what is what is odd to me is that you have a couple intellectuals like Lee on cars like the, you know, people surrounding new Atlantis magazine who are I can’t tell if they’re very religious. 

I don’t think that they are. 

They are or who are who are making all these arguments about, you know, the future sounds scary. And they’re and they’re serving as the intellectuals for religious conservatives that have a whole different set of reasons for feeling this way. 

Well, this is a this is the aspect of the this of these thinkers that is very Strauss. And I don’t really get into. I had to draw a line in the book and decide how wonky and academic and pedantic to be, which is hard for me. 

I didn’t talk about Leo Strauss and they need a Chicago tradition. But there is a philosophical issue that comes out of, you know, Chicago, which has been very influential with this group, and the main thinker of which is a fellow named Leo Strauss, a philosopher who who saw religion as religion. And I hate using the term this way, by the way. I think it’s far, far too broad. But I’m going to say traditional cultural values as very important. And you see this also in the present ethic and so forth is very important for holding society together. It’s important for people to have these beliefs because it’s better for, you know, male female relationships and courtship and marriage and family and and ultimately for stable and sound social life. And it’s very delicate. It’s very fragile. 

This this accord’s very well with the old old Edmund Burke, who is worried about the fragility of the good, the great great grandfather of modern conservatives. 

But that doesn’t mean that these thinkers themselves, by those theological narratives, they think they’re important for social stability, but they themselves, as you say, are not necessarily participants in those traditions. So it’s a very practical way of seeing things. 

Now, I’m not I’m not even sure, by the way, empirically that they’re right about that. If you look at Western Europe, as we we said in the beginning of the of the discussion, not particularly religious at all. Certainly not compared to the United States now. You know, pretty stable socially economic problems, but socially very stable. And somebody once pointed out to me, actually a criminologist, if you go to a prison, United States, you just try to find somebody who says they don’t believe in God. 

Every prisoner, every violent offender believes in God. They’ve got they’ve got God all over their bodies. They’ve got God tattooed. 

And they’ve got everything. They’ve got every symbol of religious belief. So but as you say, it is certainly true that the that that neoconservatives believe that these traditional values, at least traditional in the West for Lesco over years, are very important for social stability. 

So we know where they’re coming from and we know that they want to slow things down, and they probably do see this kind of futile when, you know, nothing ever seems to slow down. 

I mean, mostly things are going on really fast and no one’s even noticing. That’s that’s my perception of the science in an area like synthetic biology. 

Well, I mean, what’s harder and I think maybe I’ll make this the last question is where does a bio progressive actually say stop? I mean, is there a place because mostly we’re pretty cool with everything, as long as we don’t have some sense that, oh, this bug is going to be unleashed in the environment and it’s going to end the world, which we don’t we don’t think the science supports that on any of these topics yet. Then the other. Otherwise, we’re just OK. Well, we’ll monitor. We’ll we’ll have some kind of light regulation, but there’s nothing we actually say no to. What would you what would push you to. Put on the brakes. 

Well, clearly, as you say, regulation for health and safety, I think love them in ensuring also that though that there’s a level playing field, you know, on the financial side. I, I get anxious about multinational companies that have all of their deposits in the West doing things that are very that can be very disruptive for fisheries in Asia and for subsistence farmers without those countries, particularly the extent that they’re truly democratic countries, having us having a voice in in how the those multi-national entities intercede in their economies. I think that that’s one that we haven’t really begun to talk about yet. And I think that there is something to what our friends, who among the sort of green progressives, although they don’t have good solutions for this problem, I think there’s something to what they say about this. I’m thinking about groups like the EDC group. They go further than I would. But I think that is an area that is by progressives as progressive as we need to start worrying about a lot more. So I think, obviously, health and safety considerations are keeping the level playing field for particularly for young people who are trying to get into business. This is another another topic that I think is very important, not only for biotechnology, but in general now, but also the way we do have a tendency to think, you know, as Mark said, capitalism remakes the world in its own image. 

And that does engender some responsibility on the part of the the sources of capitalism, including the way that biotechnology interests project their power around the world. 

Well, there’s a lot to think about here. 

You know, I’m I’m struck on a closing note by just the incredible uncertainty when you think about it from the political perspective and the scientific perspective of where it all heads. I’m willing to hazard that that one, you know, new biological century issue that really drives everybody up the wall and changes everything is not even one that we’re talking about right now and that nobody’s talking about. 

Yeah, I know. I actually agree with you. I said out of the book as if we’re talking a great of issues right now in the short term. But history is full of surprises. 

Well, on that note, Jonathan Marino, thank you so much for your guidance towards the future is coming. Great to have you. 

Thanks so much, Chris Heben. Appreciate it. 

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Chris Mooney